Planning for Fmr. Inner Ear Site — “Arlington Cultural Affairs is working with public art and placemaking firm Graham Projects to design a future arts space at 2700 S. Nelson Street/2701 S. Oakland Street in Green Valley, and we are looking for your inspiration and input. A flexible, outdoor open space is planned for the site, which will be designed following the planned demolition of the existing building this fall. In the meantime, we want YOUR thoughts and ideas!” [Arlington County]
Big Money for Growing Local Company — “Arlington’s Federated Wireless Inc. has raised an additional $14 million in a second closing of its latest round of funding — bringing the raise’s total to $72 million — as it looks to augment the private wireless market.” [Washington Business Journal]
Refugee Wins Reprieve in Court — “In a brief ruling from the bench that surprised both sides with its speed, Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. in December declared Khoy’s plea vacated. Khoy reached for her lawyer’s arm in disbelief. Was the nightmare really over?” [Washington Post]
Events to Mark Civic Association Anniversary — “The John M. Langston Citizens Association will celebrate the 85th Anniversary of the organization with a series of events during the weekend of May 13th through 15th. The Opening Program on Friday, May 13th at the Langston-Brown Community Center will feature recognition of the 28 plaintiffs from the Thompson v. Arlington School Board 1958 court case who were denied entrance to white schools, when the Stratford Four… were admitted on February 2, 1959.” [HallsHill.com]
SoberRide for Cinco de Mayo — “Offered by the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP), the 2022 Cinco de Mayo SoberRide® program will be in operation beginning at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 5th (Cinco de Mayo) and operate until 4:00 a.m. on Friday, May 6th as a way to keep local roads safe from impaired drivers during this traditionally high-risk period.” [WRAP]
Circulator Strike Planned — “Fed up with a lack of progress in contract talks and unfair labor practices, the bus drivers for the DC Circulator, employed by RATP Dev, will be on strike tomorrow morning, Tuesday, May 3rd and will stay out until an agreement is reached.” [ATU Local 689]
It’s Tuesday — Partly sunny during the day, then a chance of showers and thunderstorms, mainly after 8 p.m. High of 75 and low of 56. Sunrise at 6:09 am and sunset at 8:04 pm. [Weather.gov]
Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf
The announcements were made last night after a judge struck down the federal transportation mask mandate. Some cheered the end of the mandates, while others urged travelers to remain masked regardless.
For Metro, the end of the mask mandate extends to both riders and employees. From a press release:
Effective immediately, Metro will make masks optional on Metrorail, Metrobus and MetroAccess for its customers. Masks also will be optional for Metro employees. This change comes as a result of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) suspending enforcement, while the Biden Administration reviews a federal judge’s ruling.
“Our mask mandate has been based on federal guidance,” said General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Paul J. Wiedefeld. “We will continue to monitor this situation as it unfolds, but masks will be optional on Metro property until further notice.”
Metro encourages its customers to make decisions that are in their best interests. Updates will be provided as new information becomes available.
So far, there’s no word from Arlington Transit about the status of masks on ART buses. In New York City, the subway system has, for now, continued to require masks.
In general, what do you think of the decision to end mask mandates on public transportation? Also, do you plan on continuing to wear masks regardless?
Mysterious Bug Bites Reported — Arlington residents are against dealing with red and intensely itchy bug bites, the cause of which is so far unclear. One theory is that last year’s scourge of oak mites are back. [Facebook, WUSA 9]
Catalytic Converter Thefts in Fairlington — “A resident has reported that the catalytic converter on their Toyota Prius was stolen during the night March 21, 2022. The converter was physically cut away from the vehicle. There have been 7 similar thefts of catalytic converters reported from the Fairlington neighborhoods.” [Twitter]
Man Pistol Whipped By Intruder — “2000 block of S. Kenmore Street. At approximately 2:15 p.m. on March 22, police were dispatched to the report of trouble unknown. Upon arrival, it was determined that the victim was inside his residence when the three known suspects forced entry inside and struck him with a firearm. The victim then deployed pepper spray and the suspects fled the scene. The victim sustained non-life threatening injuries and was transported to an area hospital for medical treatment. Warrants were obtained for one suspect.” [ACPD]
Gym in Crystal City Unionizes — From Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon: “Movement Crystal City is the US’s first unionized climbing gym. We wrote about this place when it was called Earth Treks.” [Twitter, Twitter]
Help for Arlington’s Ukrainian Sister City — “That partnership, which came to fruition after years of advocacy by Sonevytsky, has mostly focused on cultural and professional exchanges. But the unprovoked Russian attack on Ukraine last month changed all that. Now, the Arlington Sister City Association and the volunteer group that runs the Ivano-Frankivsk relationship are focused on a new mission: helping send humanitarian aid to their partner city and educating Arlington residents about their community’s ties to a place now in a war zone.” [WAMU]
Reminder: Free Observation Deck in Rosslyn — “If you’re looking for views of the blossoms at the Tidal Basin and beyond, head to The View of DC, located at 1201 Wilson Boulevard! This 360-degree observation deck is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with evening hours until 9 p.m. on Mondays!) and admission is free with a valid government ID.” [Rosslyn BID]
Injunction Against Va. Mask-Optional Law — “Preliminary injunction granted by the federal court preventing defendants from enforcing EO 2 and SB 739 (the mask-optional law) in schools where the plaintiffs & their children are enrolled.” [Twitter, Washington Post, WJLA]
Pappy Is Back at Virginia ABC — “Good news bourbon lovers: Virginia’s annual Pappy Van Winkle lottery is back — this year with two types of Van Winkles… Anyone 21 and over with a valid Virginia driver’s license (you have to prove it when you show up to purchase) can enter the lotteries on Virginia ABC’s website from Wednesday, March 23 until Sunday, March 27 at 11:59pm.” [Axios]
It’s Thursday — After early morning storms, light rain throughout much the day. High of 66 and low of 58. Sunrise at 7:06 am and sunset at 7:25 pm. [Weather.gov]
A man accused of raping a teenager in Arlington 13 years ago will be going to trial later this month.
The two-year-long process to bring him to trial in what was once considered a cold case may be facing delays, however, after a mistrial was declared last week.
Efren Cruz, 43, is accused of rape and sodomy. He fled Arlington sometime after the rape in 2009, authorities say, and the investigation went cold until the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers found and arrested him in 2016.
Cruz is a Honduran citizen who came to the U.S. in 1998, according to ICE. He was extradited back to Virginia and arrested in March 2020. A grand jury indicted him on rape and sodomy charges in August of that year.
His initial trial, which began last Monday (Feb. 28), ended a day later when the presiding judge declared a mistrial. The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Arlington Public Defender Office both declined to comment on why this happened, citing professional obligations given that the case is still pending
We are told, however, that the court proceedings somehow lacked transparency and the judge declared the case a mistrial in an abundance of caution, allowing a new trial to be scheduled.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors met today (Wednesday) with Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise M. DiMatteo and rescheduled the trial for Monday, March 21. An attorney speaking on behalf of Senior Assistant Public Defender Lauren Brice, who is representing Cruz, told the judge this would be enough time for Brice to file new motions in the case based on forthcoming transcripts documenting “whatever happened” in the courtroom last week.
Addressing the prosecution, DiMatteo said she imagines “the remedies that need to take place” after last week are “happening right now.”
The Cruz case dates back to Aug. 28, 2009, when a teen girl told the Arlington County Police Department that a man had sexually assaulted her in her in the 3500 block of S. Ball Street, near Crystal City. Different documents say the alleged victim, named K.C. in court documents, was 13 or 14 years old at the time.
Court records indicate the teenager underwent a physical exam so DNA could be collected. Eventually, a forensic analysis from 2017 determined Cruz “cannot be eliminated as a contributor” of the DNA evidence that was found on her.
The day after K.C. went to ACPD, a felony warrant was issued for Cruz, a then-30-year-old Woodbridge resident and construction worker. Cruz fled to the Houston area sometime between the rape and December 2010, when he was convicted in Texas on charges of criminal mischief and evading arrest and detention charges under a different name, according to court records. At the time, local law enforcement apparently did not know he was a wanted man in Virginia.
Struggling to find Cruz in the months after the rape, detectives in Arlington requested the public’s assistance in a press release dated Nov. 6, 2009.
Without any leads as to his whereabouts, the case in Arlington eventually went cold. It was reassigned in late 2015 to the U.S. Marshals Service, which worked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to locate him, according to a press release from ICE.
The two law enforcement agencies found Cruz — who was on Virginia’s Most Wanted List, according to the article — living in Houston under the alias of Anthony Sanchez. He was arrested without incident in March 2016.
Court records note that Cruz was a serial offender, with a 2009 larceny conviction and an arrest for soliciting a prostitute. ICE officers also connected him to a sex offense against a minor in 2012 in Houston, under his alias of Anthony Sanchez. He was convicted of indecent sexual contact with a child in Texas in 2017, according to court records.
After an Arlington grand jury indicted Cruz in 2020, multiple trial dates were set and then withdrawn, including one instance said to be due to staffing changes within the defender’s office that his attorneys argued would hurt his case.
A D.C. man convicted of raping a massage therapist in a Columbia Pike apartment building in 2018 has been sentenced to life in prison.
It was the second rape conviction for 63-year-old Salodus Zeloter Hicks, thus leading to the lengthy sentence from Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo.
Hicks was arrested less than a week after the crime, after a 16-hour standoff at a home in Northwest D.C. Arlington County police were assisted by D.C. police and the FBI; Hicks was safely apprehended after he finally surrendered.
In a statement, Arlington County Police Chief Andy Penn called Hicks “a sexual predator [who] will never have the opportunity to target another member of our community.” Arlington’s top prosecutor, Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, said the sentence “is severe, but warranted.”
More from a county press release, below.
After being found guilty by an Arlington County jury in September, Salodus Zeloter Hicks, 63, of Washington D.C. was sentenced on Friday, February 25, 2022, to life in prison plus 12 months for a rape that occurred in 2018. Judge DiMatteo imposed a sentence of life in prison on the charge of rape (2nd offense) and 12 months on the charge of assault & battery.
At approximately 4:02 p.m. on September 17, 2018, police responded to the 5500 block of Columbia Pike for the late report of a rape. Upon arrival, it was determined that the victim and suspect made contact through an online advertisement for massage therapy. After the suspect arrived for the massage appointment, he asked for sexual services and when the victim refused, he strangled and raped her.
Following the assault, the suspect fled the scene but was captured on surveillance video. A press release requesting the public’s assistance helped identify Hicks as the suspect. On the evening of September 26, 2018, detectives attempted to execute search and arrest warrants on the suspect at his residence in NW Washington, D.C. The suspect refused to exit the residence and following a 16-hour barricade, he surrendered and was taken into police custody with assistance by the FBI’s Washington Field Office and Metropolitan Police Department. Once in custody, the search warrant was executed and additional evidence linking him to the rape was recovered.
“Mr. Hicks never made any statements about what occurred, but the evidence did all the talking for him,” said Chief Andy Penn. “The persistent investigative work and prosecution led to an ultimate sentence that ensures a sexual predator will never have the opportunity to target another member of our community.”
“I’m grateful to the survivor for her courage in testifying against her attacker, and to the police and our trial team for their dedication in investigating and prosecuting the case,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “A life sentence is severe, but warranted, because Mr. Hicks previously had been convicted of rape. Our duty first, last, and always is to protect the community from the sort of harm Mr. Hicks caused while affording him a fair trial, and we did that.”
Arlington County has created a new youth program aimed at diverting young people who commit crimes from the criminal justice system.
The program, called “Heart of Safety,” is the first county program established to find alternatives to prosecution in certain misdemeanor and felony cases committed by juveniles and young adults, according to a press release from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the top prosecutor for Arlington and the City of Falls Church, announced today (Tuesday) that she signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Arlington Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit and a county initiative called Restorative Arlington to found Heart of Safety.
Restorative Arlington began in 2020 to introduce to the public schools system, legal system and community new ways of holding people accountable for their crimes without putting them through the court process.
The founders of Heart of Safety say it will give victims a say in what they need to feel that justice has been served, while holding those who committed the crime accountable and reducing future crimes in the long run.
“Heart of Safety is about survivors’ rights, youth rehabilitation, and crime prevention; for survivors, it’s the peace of mind of taking charge of their recovery; for young people, it’s a second chance to make right what they did wrong; and for the community, it’s an investment in crime prevention,” said Dehghani-Tafti, who campaigned on a justice reform platform in 2019.
People who commit crimes and victims can volunteer to resolve their case through a conferencing process. Either the victim or the person who committed the crime must be 26 or younger when the incident took place to participate.
Cases have to be identified and deemed appropriate for the conferencing process, which is overseen by a trained facilitator. This person talks with both parties to listen to their experiences, understand what they need and determine if they should meet. If so, the facilitator brings the participants together to draft a restoration plan and follows up with them later to ensure they completed the plan and are satisfied with the outcome.
If this process doesn’t resolve the case, the Commonwealth’s Attorney can open a prosecution case.
“Heart of Safety embodies the priorities and interests of our community and is in full alignment with best practices in restorative justice diversion,” Restorative Arlington Executive Director Kimiko Lighty said. “We are grateful to be able to offer this long-awaited option for people who have been harmed in our community.”
Restorative Arlington worked with volunteers — victims of crimes, formerly incarcerated persons, teens and young adults — over the course of two years to establish Heart of Safety, according to the county.
Leaders of Restorative Arlington, meanwhile, are working with Arlington Public Schools to draft an agreement that would allow schools to refer students directly to Heart of Safety. The county says this will allow schools to hold students accountable for wrongdoing while keeping them out of the criminal justice system.
“Restorative Arlington’s Heart of Safety program will provide a great new option for diverting some youth from the traditional court process,” said Earl Conklin, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit Director. “It is an alternative model that has proven successful for both the youth and those who have been harmed.”
(updated at 5:30 p.m.) In a win for a number of local school boards, the Arlington County Circuit Court has issued a temporary injunction preventing Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin from banning mask mandates in schools.
The ruling came late Friday afternoon, after an emergency hearing that was held on Wednesday (Feb. 2).
As was discussed in the courtroom, the final ruling will come down to if Gov. Glenn Youngkin, even with emergency powers, has the ability to override local school boards’ decisions given to them in Senate Bill 1303. The court ruled today that the argument has merit so issued a temporary injunction allowing schools to continue their policies.
In response, Arlington County Public Schools issued a statement on behalf of all the involved school boards. It reads in part:
“The School Boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County are pleased with the temporary injunction granted today by the Arlington Circuit Court. The order allows schools to continue to protect the health and well being of all students and staff. While the legal process on this matter continues, today’s ruling preserves the existing policies and practices in Virginia school divisions, which includes masking requirements.”
The judge writes the case rests on the issue of authority, She finds Gov. Youngkin’s Execuive Order, issued through his emergency powers, can’t override school district policy. pic.twitter.com/PCKTt9yO55
— Julie Carey (@JulieCareyNBC) February 4, 2022
On Jan. 15, the day after his inauguration, Youngkin issued an executive order banning mask mandates in Virginia schools. Days later, he was sued by seven state school boards including by those in Arlington, the City of Alexandria and Fairfax County.
The lawsuit claims that the executive order is in violation of the Virginia Constitution that gives individual school boards the authority to supervise public schools. The suit also alleges that the order violates Senate Bill 1303, signed into law last March, that requires schools to offer for in-person learning while following CDC guidance and applying “any currently applicable mitigation strategies” to reduce the transmission of Covid.
“Without today’s action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position — faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law,” the Arlington Public Schools press release said about bringing the lawsuit. “Today’s action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.”
Another hearing will be set in regards to a permanent injunction.
Opinion Pages 1-4 pic.twitter.com/SfjRJZA6BL
— Karl Frisch (@KarlFrischFCPS) February 4, 2022
The full APS statement is below.
(updated at 3:35 p.m.) The Arlington School Board is suing to stop Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order that doesn’t allow school systems to require students to wear masks.
The lawsuit filed this morning (Monday) challenges the order issued by Youngkin on Jan. 15, his first day in office. Arlington joined school boards from Fairfax County, Alexandria City, Falls Church City, Hampton City, Prince William County and the City of Richmond in the suit.
The order states parents should be able to “elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.”
The order was supposed to take effect today but school districts across the state, including Arlington, already made decisions at the local level to go against the order and keep a mask requirement in place as part of a strategy to reduce the spread of Covid and maintain in-person instruction.
The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the executive order, and defends the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level. The lawsuit also claims the executive order goes against Senate Bill 1303, which was adopted in the General Assembly’s 2021 special session. The law states school boards should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s health and safety requirements.
“Everyone in our community plays a role in keeping schools open and safe for students through consistent mask wearing and other mitigation measures,” APS Superintendent Fransisco Durán wrote in an email to families. “Our shared goal remains to make sure every student continues to access in-person learning five days per week. We look forward to the opportunity to ease these requirements in APS once public health guidance indicates it is safe to do so.”
APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said the schools continue to follow the same guidelines in place since the beginning of the school year.
“If a student is not wearing a mask, our schools are advised to speak to the student and provide them a mask to wear,” he said.
He said the vast majority of APS families support and adhere to the health and safety guidelines and when students arrived at school Monday, there were “very few incidents.”
The Arlington School Board put out a statement as well, stating it “stands together with participating school boards across the Commonwealth to defend our constitutional right to set policies and supervise our local schools. We continue to make decisions that allow us to keep schools open and safe for in-person learning, in accordance with Virginia law SB 1303 and the CDC’s guidance regarding the use of universal masks and other layered prevention strategies.”
Over the last seven days, 467 students and 98 staff members were positive for Covid, according to the school system’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The full press release from Arlington Public Schools is below.
Today, the Schools Boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County, filed a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Executive Order 2 issued by the governor on January 15, 2022. The legal action, representing over 350,000 students across the state, defends the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff.
This legal action centers on fundamental questions about the framework of public education in Virginia, as set out in the Virginia Constitution and by the General Assembly. At issue is whether locally elected school boards have the exclusive authority and responsibility conferred upon them by Article VIII, § 7 of the Constitution of Virginia over supervision of the public schools in their respective communities, or whether an executive order can unilaterally override that constitutional authority.
Also at issue is whether a governor can, through executive order, without legislative action by the Virginia General Assembly, reverse a lawfully-adopted statute. In this case, Senate Bill 1303, adopted with the goal of returning students to safe in-person instruction five days a week in March 2021 and still legally in effect, provides that local school boards should follow The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health and safety requirements.
Without today’s action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position — faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law. Today’s action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.
This lawsuit is not brought out of choice, but out of necessity.
With COVID-19 transmission rates high, our hospitals at crisis level, and the continued recommendation of health experts to retain universal mask-wearing for the time being, this is simply not the time to remove this critical component of layered health and safety mitigation strategies. School divisions need to continue to preserve their authority to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable, who need these mitigation measures perhaps more than anyone to be able to continue to access in-person instruction.
Advanced Towing’s legal troubles are not over yet, but owner John O’Neill is feeling good.
Even with the Virginia Attorney General’s office now seeking attorney fees from Advanced, in addition to the mere $750 fine imposed by an Arlington judge, O’Neill feels “vindicated” and calls the AG’s case against him “blackmail.”
On Friday morning, both sides appeared at Arlington Circuit Court in front of Judge William Newman to enter a final order in the AG’s suit. However, since the court didn’t initially rule on the payment of attorney’s fees, a final order couldn’t be agreed on due to the AG’s office insistence that it’s still owed additional money.
As expected, the defense didn’t agree, so the case will continue with another hearing. That’s likely to come in April, when Republican Jason Miyares succeeds Democrat Mark Herring as the state attorney general.
While it’s unclear at this time how much those attorney’s fees may be, O’Neill tells ARLnow he isn’t worried about it.
“Come January, there’ll be a new AG in charge who believes this case is overbearing. I’ve talked to him,” O’Neill says. “I’m very comfortable that this will not be [sought].”
It was a month ago that the court ruled for the towing company to pay a civil fine of $750 for five separate violations of trespass towing rules. Herring’s office brought the case alleging the Advanced often improperly and unsafely tows vehicles, calling the company’s practices “frequently predatory, aggressive, overreaching and illegal.”
The three-digit fine is not the outcome the now-outgoing Attorney General was seeking.
“I am disappointed that the Court only awarded $750 in civil penalties and did not award restitution to consumers, especially the victims of Advanced’s dangerous towing practices who voluntarily testified in court to tell their story,” the outgoing Herring wrote in a statement to ARLnow last month. “Advanced Towing has employed predatory and illegal towing practices for years, costing Virginia consumers hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and it deserves to be held accountable for its actions.”
But to O’Neill, the court’s decision was proof that his company operates legally, despite public perception to the contrary.
“I was right along. I was vindicated,” he says. “I always had authority to tow and we never made a mistake. People who got their tow parked illegally and we worked in accordance with the law.”
He calls the $650,000 sought by the AG’s Office “blackmail money” and says the whole case was a “witch hunt.”
In a conversation with ARLnow, O’Neill also took shots at the Assistant Attorney General who prosecuted the case.
“She wanted to make my life hell,” he said. “We spent the next year and a half with paperwork up our ass.”
When asked if there were lessons learned from the experience, O’Neill says that just because the government says you are guilty of something, doesn’t mean that you are.
“I didn’t accept the blackmail attempts. This was David vs. Goliath,” said O’Neill, adding that he’s still working to pay the bill for his legal defense, helmed by attorney and sitting state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax).
“We didn’t have the means to fight this case, but I protected my business and the rights of private property owners across the Commonwealth,” he said.
In terms of the violations for which the court found Advanced Towing liable — including drivers not securing safety straps on vehicles — O’Neill was dismissive and noted that this was primarily the driver’s responsibility.
Saying he “went through hell” with the trial, O’Neill believes Advanced Towing’s victory is a triumph for the entire towing industry.
“Private property owner rights were at stake,” he said. “If [the AG’s office] had won, towing companies would have been hesitant to tow cars… The entire industry is rejoicing. Now, they feel protected.”
The court has ordered the towing company, whose tactics have angered many in Arlington, to pay a civil penalty of just $750 for five separate violations. That’s a far cry from the $650,900 that the Attorney General’s office was seeking at trial.
“Although the Defendant’s conduct is sanctionable, the Court is constrained by the remedies available in both the Virginia and Arlington County Code,” wrote Judge William Newman in an opinion letter sent to both sides late Wednesday afternoon.
Additionally, the court did not issue an injunction against the towing company, writing that while there were “deficiencies” in Advanced Towing’s business practices and record keeping, the court “does not find evidence to issue a permanent injunction against Defendant.”
Chap Petersen, Advanced Towing’s attorney — as well as a Virginia state Senator — said at trial that he believed “the office of the Attorney General wants to put my client out of business.” He said the ruling largely vindicates the company and owner John O’Neill.
“While disappointed that the Court made any findings against our client, we feel vindicated in that the Court only assessed a $750 fine for the [five] found violations,” writes Petersen in a statement to ARLnow.
The court assessed one $150 civil penalty for not safely securing consumer vehicles with straps, one $150 civil penalty for not updating contract changes for a commercial parking lot in Ballston, and three $150 civil penalties for employing three drivers that were not registered with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).
During the trial, the AG’s office, represented by Assistant Attorney General Erin Witte, called Advanced Towing’s practices “predatory, illegal, and dangerous.” To prove this, they called up a parade of witnesses, including Arlington County police officers and drivers who had their cars towed.
The court found merit in only some of the Attorney General’s claims.
The AG’s office argued that Advanced Towing didn’t clearly mark parking spaces at the Ballston lot, near Gold’s Gym on Wilson Blvd, leaving consumers confused. However, the court ruled the spots were properly labeled and signs properly posted and, therefore, didn’t assess a civil penalty.
Additionally, the AG’s office claimed that Advanced Towing didn’t have copies of towing contracts available for public inspection. But the court ruled that the relevant contracts were available to the public and, also, didn’t assess a civil penalty for that.
“Advanced Towing has been found to have violated the law and it’s time for the company to clean up its act. I am disappointed that the Court only awarded $750 in civil penalties and did not award restitution to consumers, especially the victims of Advanced’s dangerous towing practices who voluntarily testified in court to tell their story,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring wrote in a statement to ARLnow. “Advanced Towing has employed predatory and illegal towing practices for years, costing Virginia consumers hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and it deserves to be held accountable for its actions. I am proud of the hard work my Consumer Protection Section has done on this case, and we will not stop going after bad actors who prey on Virginians just trying to go about their daily lives.”
Petersen noted that, before the trial, the Attorney General’s office offered to settle the case over the summer for $780,000 and an injunction against certain practices by the company.
“I think the difference between the AG’s offer and the Court’s decision speaks for itself,” he said.
While it remains possible that the Attorney General could appeal the ruling, Herring lost his bid for a third term last week, putting further action in the case into question.
A final decree is scheduled to be presented to both sides in court on December 10.
A decision is expected in Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s lawsuit against Advanced Towing within the next two weeks, a judge said after the trial’s closing arguments Wednesday.
The AG’s office is seeking $650,900 in restitution and civil penalties from Advanced Towing, as well as an injunction. The defense is asking for the case to be dismissed.
Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William T. Newman is presiding over the case, which pits the Commonwealth against a widely-loathed but also widely-used, Ballston-based company that tows vehicles that are considered to be trespassing on private property.
Word of the pending ruling comes after three days of arguments, with the trial starting earlier this month and concluding this week. Wednesday’s closing arguments took just over an hour combined and were intended to crystalize their positions for the judge.
The AG’s office, represented by Assistant Attorney General Erin Witte, reiterated that Advanced Towing practices were “predatory, illegal, and dangerous” while focusing on three main arguments.
First, the employment of unregistered drivers. The AG’s office alleged that more than 10,000 tows, pulled from company records, were made over the last several years by not up-to-date or unregistered tow truck drivers. All drivers are required to be registered with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).
While Virginia code puts the onus on individual drivers to be registered, it also states that no tow truck operators should “violate, or assist, induce, or cooperate with others to violate, any provision of law related to the offering or delivery of towing and recovery services.”
Witte argued that Advanced Towing ran afoul of this provision by allowing drivers to tow without registration, no matter their intent. There’s also no company policy to have those registrations on file.
Then, the focus shifted to alleged unsafe towing conduct with the AG’s office citing consumer, resident, and police officer testimony of spotting (and ticketing) drivers not applying safety straps when towing. Witte also noted the “unprofessional” interactions some customers had, including testimony from one man who had his car lifted at the tow yard while he was in it.
Finally, Witte spoke about the legality of the contract and towing being done at a specific shopping center parking lot, along Wilson Blvd near Ballston. The contract wasn’t kept up to date with specifics about when Advanced Towing could tow and when, the assistant AG said. The contract also wasn’t made easily available to the public, as county code stipulates, and a revised contract was once backdated before it was provided to a customer upon their request.
Additionally, the markings on individual parking spaces were unclear, particularly night, leaving customers confused, the Commonwealth argued.
In conclusion, Witte said the AG’s office is seeking restitution and civil penalties to “send a message to the defense.”
“[Advanced Towing] tows as many cars as fast as possible,” Witte said. “And acted without regard for the law or safety… we need to hold the defense accountable.”
In his closing arguments, Advanced Towing’s attorney, Chap Petersen — who’s also a state senator — defended his client from these allegations.